Wednesday, August 09, 2017

I thee pay

Here’s what everyday life has become in the Western world: economic speed-dating.

You try on a shirt at a department store but purchase it from a discounter. You browse the shelves at your local indie but buy books from Amazon. And, as you do all this, you engage in a series of wanton financial encounter sessions with a variety of intermediaries – the phones, tablets, laptops; credit cards, passwords, security codes; signatures, clicks, swipes that are the matchmakers of the never-ending hook-up between product and payment.

Paid: tales of dongles, checks, and other money stuff – edited by Bill Maurer (a legal and economic anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine) and Lana Swartz (a media studies prof at the University of Virginia) and published by MIT Press – aims to be a compendium of these oft-ignored financial friends with benefits. It’s a bestiary of the tools of trade. Not just money itself, but things that have existed through history that make it possible to pay and record your payment: plastic cards, signature panes, receipts, ledger books, magnetic strips, wooden tallies. In Paid, these wonky workarounds get their 15 minutes of fame.

The volume features a seemingly endless roll of fun factoids that involve paying, an act almost all of us have occasion to do multiple times a day.

  • Did you know, for instance, that the term ‘credit card’ was coined by the Victorian-era writer Edward Bellamy in his 1887 novel Looking Backward.
  • Or that Ben Franklin put leaf designs on the currency he printed for the State of Pennsylvania in the 1730s because leaves are fiendishly difficult to counterfeit.
  • Did you know that the shell bead money created and traded by the Native tribes of the Pacific Northwest were a ceremonial currency – dealt between clan leaders to honor and pay tribute to important occasions, such as funerals and births – but not often used by ordinary individuals.
  • Or that in racist America of the 1950s, there was a special publication to let African-American travelers and tourists know what enterprises along the highway would serve them and where they would be safe stopping off.
  • Did you know that the ancient Norman method for keeping track of debts was to break a stick – the longer part of which (the stock) was held by the creditor and the shorter (the stub) by the debtor, giving us the modern phrases stockholder and ticket stub. (The Oxford English Dictionary, for its part, tells a slightly different tale: the creditor’s half of the tally was the stock but the debtor’s part was the foil or counterfoil, a usage the OED dates to the 15th century.)
  • Or that workers who handle used cash at the Federal Reserve offices in Miami and San Francisco wear masks and gloves because so many bills are infused with cocaine (Miami’s vice) and THC (from having hung out at SF’s medical marijuana dispensaries).
  • Did you know that France had a government-run national dial-up chat, commerce and gaming platform that debuted in ­1979.­­­
  • Or that there was a music streaming service designed to bring synthesized tunes to your house via the telephone that debuted (and failed) a hundred years before its time, in 1906.
  • Or that we’ve never fully deciphered the ancient Incan khipus – lengths of knotted string that anthropologists and scientists believe were the blockchains of their day, distributed ledgers whose knots recorded tax payments, transactions, government expenditures, etc.

Nothing’s orderly or complete in this financial breviary. The ubiquitous Square credit/debit card reader is here. But the chip reader is not. Apple Pay is here, but not Paypal. The pin code but not the bar code. Silver but not scrip. We learn excellent info about the written ledgers of one extended family in Ecuador but nothing about the handwritten shared title deeds people buy into in Turkey. Coin dispensers don’t show up here – neither the electronic ones connected to cash registers in certain once-cutting-edge stores nor the hand-held ones that once were the contrivances of bus drivers, train conductors, and ice-cream men. Nor do bill counters, fare boxes, coin slides or change-making machines.

This haphazardness is annoying in small ways (the editors of Paid tell us the exact serial numbers of the National Science Foundation grants that funded some of the research, but neglect to give us any background – bios, affiliations, anything – about the writers who cheerfully contributed to the book) but winds up being part of this volume's charm. The logic here is digression and tangent – and, thankfully, in many of the essays, the meandering approach pays off.

Perhaps my favorite entry in Paid seems to have little to do with modes of payment. Keith Hart, the economic anthropologist who coined the phrase “informal economy” to describe the multitude of ways people did business on the streets of Accra, Ghana, offers a gentle confession, admitting that he funded his stay in the Ghanaian capital in the 1960s though his own entry into the illicit economy he was studying. Hart bankrolled a thriving illegal business as a money lender and a fence of stolen property (he was the behind-the-scenes guy, his landlord, Ananga, the public face of the enterprise). “I extended my fieldwork by eighteen months solely on the revenues of my business,” he reports, adding that his foray into illicit trade gave him additional compensation because it was also how he got some of his richest field notes.

Understandably, Hart felt guilty about his profitable doings, so he hosted “large rice, beer, and sheep parties” and gave sandals and blankets to the needy. This gift economy, he notes, turned out to be a good business strategy, too: “I was now seen as a big man redistributing to the people and became even more popular with the thieves.”

Hart fondly remembers a bunch of soldiers who were outraged when he couldn’t exchange a wad of out-of-date Egyptian currency, and asks, “What do you say to a disappointed soldier with a Kalashnikov?”

You can’t read Hart's piece and not agree that “money is a means of communication.”

Still, tangential reason can also cause some writings to lose the thread. An essay on the gifts Airbnb guests sometimes leave for their hosts takes no account of the modern reality that these personal relationships are being elbowed aside by investors who buy or lease apartments with the express purpose of pimping them out on Airbnb.

Another contribution, chronicling a pop-up espresso bar in which payment is destabilized, disturbed, and dirtied (buyers are encouraged to throw their payment on the floor) emphasizes the idea that it is an art project but misses the fact that the world is flush with analogous experiences. Early this year, I got on a near-empty C-train in Brooklyn and witnessed what seemed like a spontaneous piece of performance art: a disheveled guy with a grey food-flecked beard pulled a bunch of dirty and crumpled dollar bills from his pocket, smoothed them across what looked and smelled like shit-stained pants, and then placed them at equal intervals on the plastic bench next to him. He stood and surveyed his work, then turned his back on the installation and shuffled into the next subway car. Three teens – two boys and a girl -- were watching him along with me. The boys eyed the cash and one of them made a move. But the girl grabbed his arm: “Don’t you dare. You have no idea where that money’s been.” The boys slumped back on their seats and, a few stations later, we all got off to change trains. As the doors closed, I looked back at the dirty dollars resting peacefully on the blue plastic seat, secure in the knowledge that a special someone would come along soon to pocket them.

A few weeks ago, on a central Brooklyn street, I walked alongside a fellow who, perhaps inadvertently,  critiqued the modern world by shouting, again and again, “My heart is bigger than fucking money.” And late last year, in another subway encounter, a burly bearded man stood at the top of a flight of stairs in the morning rush like a biblical prophet. “Heavy are your moneybags,” he intoned. Streams of people parted like the Red Sea as they dashed around him.

Paid proves this Moses of the MTA right: though you pay them little heed, there’s hidden meaning in your devices of desire.